I am home again after being in Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. The cherry tree is in full fall color and the leaves are scattered across the lawn. Rain has been falling like b.b.s from the sky and a hard southeastern wind has been blowing up the coast.
We took the ferry from Ketchikan on Jan’s birthday after a crass art tour and a spectacular helicopter charter with Ray Troll. I never thought Revillagigedo was so beautiful in its mountainous center or had so many goats! The crass art tour was also great. Ray Troll knows where to find it all.
After that excitement and a pint sized bloody mary at the Artic Bar we boarded the Matanuska Ferry and traveled to Prince Rupert B.C. and back across Dixon Entrance, which can be extraordinarily rough, but this trip was a gentle roll both directions. We came back to Ketchikan, then on to Wrangell, Petersburg, Kake, Sitka! (where we off loaded our laundry and some extra weight of books we have read and went for a walk with Ernie Eggleston) then to Hoonah and landed in Juneau at four thirty AM. The Driftwood hotel had it’s shuttle waiting for us and we checked right in. Jan’s birthday trip was lovely and relaxing. We love traveling by ship. We played dominoes, read mysteries and I slept more soundly than I had in months. Three nights on the ferry in almost perfect weather.
Juneau brought classic wet fall storms. I read at the new State Library with Heather Lende and Ishmael Hope, two of my favorite Alaskan writers. Heather I have known for years, and Ishmael I have known as a child but who is now coming into his own as a scholar and a poet. The reading was a fun gathering of smart and loving people, on Alaska Day which, like Columbus day has become somewhat controversial, for it’s colonialist commemoration of the Alaska purchase from Russia, but Heather reminded us to find the good, and Ismael reminded us to cast a wide net in our reading and understanding. I read haiku in order to share my love of the landscape and how it has shaped us all.
Then the stormy small plane ride to Skagway where I observed the unveiling of the memorial to those lost when the Steam Ship Princess Sophia went aground and almost three hundred and seventy people died when it broke apart and sank on Vanderbilt Reef precisely one hundred years ago. Entire families, and almost eighty employees of the Whitepass transport lines died in the frigid October waters. Twenty horses drown. One dog, a Red Setter survived and swam to shore.
The Princess Sophia was transporting hundreds of people from the northern gold country back down south. It was the last boat of the season, carying men and women who worked on the steamers up and down the rivers. There were gold miners, and administrators of businesses. There were entire families. One family of eight was leaving Dawson after twenty years. Their youngest was barely two years old. Everyone in the north country seemed to know someone who died. But this, the one hundredth anniversary is the first major memorial to those who died. It was 1918 when the ship went down. The news of the tragedy was overshadowed by the two other great killing events of the twentieth century: the flu pandemic of 1918, and the end of the first world war which ended that November. The sinking of The Princess Sophia, lasted only weeks in the national consciousness.
As they read the names of all the lost last week in Skagway, I knew there were Alaska Native people on board, but I could also clearly hear names of immigrants, many Irish, some Spanish or Italians perhaps a dozen Chinese. There were four African Americans on the registry, and numerous names which must have originated in Eastern Europe: Polish, Czech, Hungarian perhaps, and of course there were white Anglo Saxon Protestants, but the dead were alone together read in alphabetical order so only the families were grouped together as one can only hope they were on the night they died.
I suppose the only point I am making here is that there seems to be a nostalgia for a White Nation of America abroad in our body politic today. The beefy boys who chug milk and talk about racial purity and “taking our country back.” This is an illusion, of course. It’s a fear that they will wake up and realize that they and their children never were in fact guaranteed the privilege of membership in the management class by virtue of their racial purity. They talk about the “hard working Americans” who are having their jobs stolen by caravans of immigrants. Well, I don’t know. But I’m imagining the Chinese people who died on the Sophia had probably worked hard enough to earn a ride home, so to the Czechs and the Irish, and they all died just as hard and just the same. Together.
I was thinking because on the Matenuska this trip going through the cafeteria line there was a short order cook working the big steel grill and he appeared to be ethnically Chinese I’m not sure if he was or not, but he was incredibly fast and good at his job. He had a very long single braid that hung down from under his cap down past his butt. The kitchen on the old ferries have old massive steel fittings and stainless grills. The whole place spits steam from sinks then grease, and good smells from the grills and pots. I went into a dream that I could have been back in 1918… I could have been waiting on a bowl of chili and a biscuit after a season of cooking for myself over a wood cookstove of eggs fried hard in bacon fat. I could be warm and happy to be going home.
And I was. I am.
on yellow leaves, your smile
a warm fire.